Abe Pollin’s Washington Wizards created the Family-to-Family program 15 years ago, allowing the franchise to “adopt” families in need during the holiday season. The program — which involves the official team charity, players and staff members — was always a favorite of Pollin’s, and he would join his players in a large and packed tour bus, delivering gifts to D.C. households all over the city.
Well, the tour bus changed this year. The program became a Monumental Sports & Entertainment initiative, and so Monday afternoon, a bus pulled out of the Verizon Center loading dock with the following passengers: Mike Green, John Wall, Nicklas Backstrom, Jordan Crawford, Joel Ward, Ernie Grunfeld, Brooks Laich, Monique Currie, Shelvin Mack, John Carlson, Hamady Ndiaye, Slapshot, G-Wiz, the Wizard Girls, the Red Rockers, and various Monumental employees .
The bus took a two-hour spin throughout Northeast Washington, visiting apartments in Trinidad, Woodbridge and Rosedale, carrying goodwill and holiday cheer and three of D.C.’s most prominent pro sports teams, who are now corporate cousins.
And so there was Currie sticking her hand into Mack’s face in the back of the bus.
“What’s up, I’m Monique,” she said. “Shelvin, nice to meet you.”
There was Ndiaye, forsaking high-school cafeteria behavior and leaving the Wizards section of the bus to sit in the very back with the hockey players.
“I’m all about the unity of everything,” he told me. “Why not just mix it up, right?”
And there were Laich and Wall, side-by-side in their team-specific Santa hats, carrying presents down the street and chatting at length. I asked Laich what they had been discussing.
“Dance moves,” he joked, “country line-dancing,” before he finally gave me a real answer: Wall had asked about the concussion epidemic in the NHL, and Laich had asked Wall about head injuries in the NBA, and then they talked about rehab and health.
“It’s no different for us than it was before,” Laich said, when I asked about this corporate synergy. “But we support the Skins, the Nats, the Wizards, the Mystics. We want them to do well, and I think they do the same for us.”
“I support everything, you know what I’m saying?” Crawford agreed. “Everything that’s good, everything that’s going on good in the world.”
Of course, the Party-Time Good-Cheer Presents-and-Elves D.C. Fun Bus doesn’t exist to promote corporate brotherhood. It exists to deliver just mounds of presents and beds and couches and shoes and sports items to kids who sort of need them.
“This all mine?” 8-year old Johnathan asked at our first stop Monday, as the players piled presents in front of him.
“It’s amazing, it’s amazing,” said Janie Felder, his mother. “This means an awful lot to us. It means we’re going to enjoy our Christmas, is what it means. It’s amazing. This has made our Christmas.”
“You see the looks on their faces,” Wall said after that stop. “It’s great to give back to families, it’s great for the Wizards organization and the Caps organization and the Mystics organization to be out here.”
Kind of serious stuff. Which is not to say there weren’t moments of humor. Like the one young boy wearing a Cleveland LeBron jersey; “Oh no,” Laich said with a laugh when he saw him.
Or the time when 9-year old Shakayla White pointed out to Crawford that her name was spelled wrong on one of her gifts.
“Sorry about that, that was John’s fault,” Crawford said, pointing toward Wall.
Or the moment when Grunfeld grabbed a crying 15-month old boy and picked him up, and the kid immediately calmed down.
“Kids know when you’re nice,” Grunfeld said with a wink.
“Give him a qualifying offer,” I suggested.
“Then he’ll really like me,” the GM agreed.
More than a few of the veteran employees on the bus said how important this annual trip had been to Pollin — “Mr. Pollin was always known for giving back to the community, especially at this time of year, and we’re continuing that,” Grunfeld said. But the players didn’t need to know anything about Abe Pollin to get in the spirit.
“You were there, you saw the smiles on the kids’ faces — doesn’t that make you feel warm?” Laich asked me. “It’s almost priceless. This is the stuff that really matters.”